In recent weeks there have been a number of articles regarding the 100th anniversary of the launch of the Bolshevik Revolution—that is, the birthday of a bloodbath. In fact, here at the centenary of communism, the number “100” is fitting, given that 100 million is a good stab at the number of people annihilated by the Marxist-Leninist monstrosity the Bolsheviks sought to spread worldwide. (Actually, 100 million is probably a conservative estimate. The true number is likely closer to 140 million.)
Ronald Reagan called communism a “disease.” Good description, although it’s hard to find even a twentieth century contagion that killed as many people as this ideological pathology. Reagan put it better when he described communism as “evil” and “a form of insanity.”
And yet, all along, from the very outset, no institution foresaw the scourge of atheistic communism like the Roman Catholic Church.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily
The Church’s scathing condemnation of communism preceded even The Communist Manifesto, the ridiculous piece of work Marx and Engels published in 1848 as the official programmatic statement of the communist movement. In 1846, Pope Pius IX released Qui pluribus, affirming that communism is “absolutely contrary to the natural law itself” and if adopted would “utterly destroy the rights, property, and possessions of all men, and even society itself.” In 1849, one year after the Manifesto was published, Pius IX issued the encyclical, Nostis Et Nobiscum, which referred to both socialism and communism as “wicked theories,” “perverted theories,” and “pernicious fictions.”
For the Church and its shepherds, this was just the start of a never-ending response to communism and its ugly step-sister, socialism. (In strict Marxist-Leninist theory, socialism is a transitionary step on the way to full communism. See, among others, Lenin’s awful screed, The State and Revolution.)
In 1878, Pope Leo XIII followed with Quod Apostolici muneris, defining communism as “the fatal plague which insinuates itself into the very marrow of human society only to bring about its ruin.” More such Church statements followed, in 1924, 1928, 1930, 1931, 1932, 1933, and on and on.
Among these, 1931 saw Pope Pius XI issue his seminal Quadragesimo Anno, which ought to be required reading in every parish religious education program. If you’re tired of hearing Sister Social Justice prattle on about the wonders of “democratic socialism,” hand her this document. Few passages in Quadragesimo Anno put it as bluntly as this one (section 120): “Religious socialism, Christian socialism, are contradictory terms; no one can be at the same time a good Catholic and a true socialist.”
To repeat: you can’t be a socialist and a good Catholic.
And then came, in 1937, the strongest statement of them all, Divini Redemptoris. There, the Church made clear that the notion of a “Christian Marxist” was an oxymoron. In Marx’s dialectical materialism “there is no room for the idea of God.” Communism was a “truly diabolical” instrument of the “sons of darkness.”
And so, I share this now not only for the purpose of reminding us—and we badly need reminding—that the Church was a pillar of strength in the battle against the deadliest ideology of the last 100 years, if not of all time, but because scholar Matthew Cullinan Hoffman has just done a great work: he has dug up and translated (from the original Latin) Vatican II’s unpublished condemnations of communism.
It’s not these documents were lost, but they’ve certainly been forgotten. Hoffman told me that the documents, in their Latin form, can be found in some large research libraries, squirreled away on old shelves. They are contained in heavy volumes that include all of the acts of the Council and its preparatory phases. In his translations, Hoffman lists the precise volume and page number of the acts that contain the document in question. “However,” adds Hoffman, “the documents have only been available to academics with a knowledge of Latin until now and the very existence of these condemnations has not been widely known—they are mentioned in certain histories of the preparatory phase of Vatican II, but they have never been translated into any vernacular language that we know of.”
What Hoffman has published (courtesy of LifeSiteNews) is extraordinary. The documents are lengthy and worth reading in their entirety, and so rich that there’s too much to try to summarize here. What follows is a general summary of highlights that doesn’t do justice to the full text.
Christians “Infected” with Communism
There were three documents—technically considered “preparatory schemas”—written up and initially approved by the “General Session” in February 1962 (more on this later). The first and lengthiest of the three was titled, “On the Care of Souls With Regard to Christians Infected With Communism.” The second document, also approved in February 1962, was titled, “On the Care of Souls and Communism.” The third document, approved in April 1962, was titled, “On the Apostolate of the Laity in Environments Imbued With Materialism, Particularly Marxism.” The second and third are shorter than the first document, with the third being the briefest.
The documents are poignant philosophical statements on communism, but they are more striking for the practical steps they carefully outlined for the Church to take in countering the ideology. As Hoffman told me, “these documents represented a plan to launch a global offensive against communism.” They clearly did.
The first of the three schemas opened by identifying “atheistic communism” as a “menace” threatening the “doctrine and activity of the Church,” with a specific purpose “to radically overturn the social order and to subvert the foundations of Christian civilization.” It stated that communism “offers a false kind of redemption,” and is pervaded, “in a pseudo-mystical way, with a certain false idea of justice, equality and fraternity for all in the administration of their needs and labors, for the purpose of inflaming the masses by enticing them with deceitful promises, by which they are aroused as if by a virulent contagion.” Communism served as “a false religion without God,” as it sought to abolish the very notion of an “eternal Divinity and the hope of another life.”
The document further opened:
What follows is the plundering of man’s liberty, in which the spiritual norm of living consists, and likewise the overturning of human dignity and the desecration of human life, as well as the removal of the authority of parents to educate their children.
Seeking, therefore, to bring about a new political order, “an association of men that expels God from the earth,” atheistic communism, “like a new gospel and like a form of salvific redemption, preaches its message to all of humanity.”
What role did the Church have in the face of this atheistic menace that plundered life, liberty, property, and undermined the faithful? The document stated:
The Catholic Church, however, as it is the legitimate and authentic interpreter of the moral law, has the duty to denounce all acts perpetrated against the divine law, to confirm the faithful, and to illuminate them regarding imminent dangers as well as the social application of its principles.
The Church, as the Mystical Body of Christ, unceasingly labors to unite all men, even those who are erring, through the preaching of the Gospel, and through the love and grace of Christ.
This holy and noble duty first of all obligates “the higher members of this mystical Body, especially those from whom the divine Head will someday render an account for our souls,” indeed, the bishops, “whom the Holy Spirit has appointed to rule over the Church of God.”
Therefore, to the Church belongs the right and duty of fighting against atheistic communism regarding doctrine and regarding action or methods of activity.
The language in that opening preamble set the tone for the document, which then went on to make the crucial point that the Church has a moral-spiritual-evangelical duty to oppose communism, rather than engage in “merely political or economic anticommunism.” This is “a spiritual struggle against atheistic communism,” which the document called an “invention so full of errors and delusions.”
But what made this document so unique from all previous Church statements on communism were the concrete steps—the specific plan of action—that it laid out in 13 steps, several of them with additional sub-steps. Among them were these striking suggestions:
6. For this purpose, students are to be educated in seminaries and likewise priests in particular courses are to be instructed regarding the doctrines of communism itself, of the truths of the faith it attacks, and of the most apt pastoral method for defending the faith.
7. The bishops in the National Conferences should promote a firm and constant action against the errors of the communists through the use of experts, and likewise should ensure that in each province or nation there should be a specified group of men who, as true experts in communist doctrine, zealously combat the errors of the same doctrine with meticulous care.
8. Because pastoral activity should be addressed to all men, not excluding militant communists, the bishops should ensure that in each province or nation a select group of priests and laity be designated, men who are outstanding in knowledge or reputation, and particularly in the zeal for their apostolate, who strive to win for Christ those who are followers of communism or who are infected by its erroneous doctrines. […]
10. There is a need for an influx of workers’ guilds and a common association of laborers for the purpose of counteracting or eliminating the influx of atheistic communism among simpler souls, who have a poor understanding of the nature of communism and do not support it strongly, although they might vote in favor of communism for economic reasons. […]
Then came these eye-openers, subsets of step 11, recommending that certain Catholics (churchmen among them) be silenced, severely admonished, or even hit with penalties for succumbing to these pernicious “progressive” doctrines:
§ 7. Catholics who, infected by “progressive” doctrines and zealous for revolution, or because of a false so-called “idealism,” or a wavering judgment, or an erroneous notion of charity, or because of fear of Soviet power and a foolish shame of the judgment of man, impede action against atheistic communism, should be publicly silenced by ecclesiastical authority. Priests delinquent in this regard are to be severely admonished, and, if the case so merits, inflicted with penalties.
§ 8. Those, however, who, whether they are bishops or priests or laity, act to counter atheistic communism in a healthy way, are to be lauded and assisted and, if it is necessary, defended.
One reads some of these and feels the sense among the writers that the smoke of Satan had entered the Church, as Pope Paul VI would lament.
And then these two final concrete steps:
12. An international commission of bishops and of lay experts should be instituted, which, under the leadership of the Holy See, has the task of overseeing and supporting all of those who seek to defend and liberate mankind from the errors of atheism and communism.
13. It will be the principal duty of this international commission to promote and coordinate the studies, works, ordinances, and laws that debilitate communism and shatter its audacity.
Without a doubt, this was bold and daring. I have no special personal knowledge of precisely why this document wasn’t ultimately published, but if I had to hazard a guess, it would be that these steps might have been perceived by many Church officials as overreach or overkill—as simply too aggressive.
The text of the document closed by stating in italics: “Text definitively approved in the General Session held on the days of February 5-13, 1962.”
The “Cunning” “Contagion” of Communism
The second document, “On the Care of Souls and Communism,” reiterated much of the first document. Even then, the language is excellent and worth quoting. It started with this:
There are a large number of people in many nations who, although they were not born into ignoble families and they were even baptized and educated in the Catholic Church, are enticed by communism, enlist in communist organizations, and vote for communists in political and administrative elections. Many of them, indeed, do not adhere to communist philosophical doctrines in their hearts, and the only basis of their merely practical support for the communist cause, or at least the principal one, is that they regard it as an effective way to bring about the perfect establishment of social justice, and, in fact, for obtaining a better salary or wage for less work, for receiving an equal part of the division and distribution of wealth and material goods, and for living a more comfortable and easier life. However, those who favor communism only for economic convenience are mistaken.
The document cautioned about the “contagion of communism” employing its “cunning methods for deceiving the incautious.” This was a trenchant warning of the timeless problem of dupes, of people (especially on the “social justice” Religious Left) being suckered by communists operating with slick slogans or various tricks and tools to manipulate the gullible.
And in one of maybe the most farseeing passages in the three schemas, this second document warned of communist penetration (here is where cultural Marxists have been enormously successful) in the universities, with many Catholic colleges among them:
XXIII. It is to be strongly recommended that in universities and in other institutions of higher education of the sciences and arts, particular groups or associations be instituted for professors or students to ensure that they may not only give a public and clear testimony regarding the Christian faith by their truly Christian beliefs and manner of life, but also so they might expressly and efficaciously act to frustrate, or at least restrain, the nefarious work that is carried out hotly and bitterly in the aforementioned schools by so-called communist cells.
The third document, titled, “On the Apostolate of the Laity in Environments Imbued With Materialism, Particularly Marxism,” is the shortest of the three preparatory schemas. Nonetheless, it likewise had sharp words about the “open and militant atheism” of “so-called ‘Marxism’” and the “exceedingly grave and universal danger” it posed. Marxism constituted “the most grave form of materialism and the one most hostile towards the Christian faith.” The document also powerfully noted (in the endnotes) that while communism is an explicitly atheistic ideology that “combats all forms of religions whatsoever,” which it declares to be “the opiate of the people,” and that “it especially opposes the Roman Catholic Church,” the ironic reality is that communism itself “is a pseudo-religion, and indeed an eschatological one.” The ideology promotes a utopian-like vision of heaven on earth. Communism had a “messianic mission,” by which the glistening new “collectivity” of the blessed “masses” would be the new “redeemer of mankind.” And this “religion defends its dogmatic Marxism-Leninism, condemns heretics and excommunicates schismatics.”
Hijacked by the Rhine Liberals
In all, these were formidable statements. Powerful words. So, that being the case, why were these gems never published?
According to Matthew Cullinan Hoffman, the documents were squashed by a group of conspiring progressive prelates from Germany, France, and Holland—better known as the infamous “Rhine Group.” According to Hoffman, these leftist churchmen worked in a “highly coordinated way to achieve their goals,” and were successful. This Council minority “out-maneuvered” the majority and “took control” of the commissions overseeing the wider Council’s documents.
In the end, says Hoffman, the only thing published from this inspired effort was a timid, oblique reference in Gaudium et Spes regarding certain threatening atheistic ideologies, with a mere footnote to previous condemnations to communism by previous popes.
All of these fireworks ended with a fizzle. That’s a pretty sad testimony to the sowers of discord in the Church. In the face of an ideology that sought to “radically overturn the social order and to subvert the foundations of Christian civilization,” the liberals neutered over 20 pages of stirring, rousing, fearless text into an impotent, vague, gutless footnote.
In response, says Hoffman, dozens of bishops were outraged. In late 1965, a group of 25 bishops signed a letter admonishing the Council “for its silence on communism, which will be taken as a sign of cowardice and conniving.”
I’d personally chalk it up less to cowardice than just plain plotting, accommodating, predictable liberalism.
One shudders at this seemingly egregious sin of omission. But fortunately, things worked out in the end, by the 1980s. Perhaps the Holy Spirit either had a corrective in the works or an alternative approach for Holy Mother Church: namely, a brave pontiff from communist Poland, of all places, who would fix this error. It took a Pole, someone from behind the Iron Curtain, who lived under communism, rather than Western progressives deluded about communism, to stand up to the beast.
It would be left to Pope John Paul II, who at Vatican II had been a rising bishop from Krakow, to expunge the “virulent contagion” of Soviet communism. The Rhine group would be an obstacle only so long. It would take almost three more decades, but the scourge eventually would be lanced.